The Gospel and the Gospels: Christian Proclamation and Early Jesus Books
Simon Gathercole, The Gospel and the Gospels: Christian Proclamation and Early Jesus Books. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. xxiv + 576 pp. $55.99. ISBN 978-0-8028-7759-8.
The title of this book does not come close to suggesting either its main points or its importance. Those familiar with Simon Gathercole, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Cambridge will, of course, look forward to every one of his publications with great expectation. He is an evangelical, an active churchman, a defender of the reliability of Scripture but does so at a level of scholarship and with all the appropriate nuances and caveats that make his case sufficiently sophisticated that only a comparably detailed analysis could even hope to challenge it.
Gathercole’s starting point is the creedal or confessional passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 that is one of the oldest articulations of the bases of the Christian faith. Gathercole isolates four key components: Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, the vicarious atonement in Christ’s crucifixion, his bodily resurrection and the (Jewish) Scriptural basis for both the atonement and the resurrection. Observing that these components also appear in other non-Gospel canonical literature, Gathercole then raises the question of whether they can be found, and if so how central they are, in the various canonical and non-canonical narratives about Jesus, that is, Gospels.
Devoting one chapter apiece to the four canonical Gospels, Gathercole demonstrates how all four themes permeate Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (taking them in probable chronological order of composition). Jesus as the Christ is one of the two main titles Mark uses in his incipit (1:1) and it meshes with “the grammar” of Jewish messianism (borrowing the language of Matthew Novenson’s study of the topic), building on the pictures of a coming one in Daniel 7, Zechariah 13, Psalms 2 and 118, Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 40. Mark’s pictures of Jesus as Son of God, Son of David, King of Israel and Lord similarly emerge from Jewish backgrounds related to this eschatological figure.
Mark 10:45 (the ransom) and 14:22-25 (the Last Supper) are the clearest passages treating Jesus’ atoning death, put forward as Jesus’ own words. Gathercole ably defends the traditional interpretations against various alternatives that deny substitutionary atonement. He also recognizes that the doctrine is probably implied in less obvious passages as well, namely, 14:36 (the cup of wrath), 15:6-15 (Barabbas), 15:30-31 (mockery), 15:33 (darkness), 15:34 (cry of dereliction) and 15:38 (the torn temple curtain). Clearly Mark agreed with and possibly even knew Paul’s formula that “Christ died for our sins.”
Accepting the shorter ending of Mark makes looking for the resurrection a little trickier, but there are plenty of predictions of it in Mark’s Gospel, which also demonstrates Jesus to be reliable in his other predictions. Some of the same Old Testament passages, along with quite a few new ones, show that both the atonement and the resurrection are deeply rooted in the Jewish Scriptures.
Gathercole proceeds through the same four topics in each of his chapters on Matthew, Luke and John. Matthew is similar enough to Mark and indeed strengthens Mark’s testimony in a number of places, that he has little difficult making his points there. Luke has often been said to play down the atonement in favor of the resurrection, but Gathercole shows the fallacies in this argument and draws on entire recent monographs by John Kimbell and Benjamin Wilson to highlight how both themes are present and carefully interrelated. Because of John’s considerable differences from the Synoptics, one might imagine prima facie that they would pose greater problems for Gathercole’s thesis, but Christ again remains one of the foundational titles and concepts for the Fourth Gospel (John 20:31). The vicarious atonement appears in the themes of him laying down his life for his friends, the Good Shepherd, protecting the lives of those God has given him, and giving life in abundance. The resurrection actually receives more attention than in any of the Synoptics, with a special emphasis on the transformation it makes possible for the disciples, now and in the future. The greatest cluster of quotes and allusions to the Old Testament, including explicitly to its fulfillment, come in John’s Passion Narrative, but there are references to the resurrection throughout the Gospel as well.
When one turns to non-canonical “Gospels,” one finds oneself in a considerably different world. Gathercole has chosen representative texts from all of the major perspectives promoted in this literature and especially from texts that have been commended by one branch of recent scholarship as being as valuable and/or as ancient as the canonical Gospels for understanding earliest Christianity and its supposed diversity that canonization later curtailed. He devoted successive chapters to the Gospels of Peter, Marcion, Thomas, Truth, Philip, Judas and the Egyptians. In not one instance do all four aspects of the Corinthian creed appear, and in most cases only one or two do, and then often in drastically altered form.
The Gospel of Peter may not represent the full-fledged docetism it was once thought to represent, and it certainly knows, and even expands on, the canonical resurrection narratives. But Jesus is never called (the) Christ, his Power leaves him before he dies, there is no hint of atoning significance to his death and only very remote hints of some very general fulfillment of Scripture. Instead, Jesus’ death brings judgment on the Jews and it is not clear that the author even thinks the Old Testament to be Scripture.
The text of Marcion’s Gospel, usually understood to be a truncated version of Luke with Jewish bits left out, has been lost. But Church Fathers, especially Tertullian, reproduce enough of it for us to get a good idea of what it contained, and recent studies by Lieu and Roth have meticulously pieced together a probable exemplar of much of his text. Here we have true anti-Semitism, two Christs (a good one, Jesus, and a bad one, still to come, fulfilling certain Jewish hopes). Marcion does believe that Jesus died an atoning death, and he apparently believes in the resurrection, though it does not play much of a role in his thinking, but he strongly disavows Jesus’ association for either with the Hebrew Scriptures, which come from a bad God, and against which Jesus consistently taught.
Jesus as the Christ is entirely absent from the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus’ death is exemplary but not salvific. There are no unambiguous references to the resurrection and both crucifixion and resurrection are entirely severed from Scriptural fulfillment. The Valentinian Gospel of Truth uses “Christ” twice, but other titles much more commonly. It knows Jesus’ atoning death, but more significant is his destruction of the past evil world. Resurrection and Scriptural precedent for anything in this “Gospel,” however, appear to be entirely absent.
In Philip, “Christ” becomes “democratized,” because his followers can apply the title to themselves as well. Jesus rose first (spiritually ascending) before his body died. His death and resurrection are therefore revelatory but not vicarious. At most, Scripture offers “types” of New Testament truths but no actual fulfillments of specific texts. In Judas, we reach a diametrically opposite pole from the canonical Gospels. Christ becomes a demonic name, a concept unparalleled elsewhere in early “Christian” literature. The text ends before the crucifixion and resurrection, apparently content with turning Judas into a hero instead of a villain. There are no uses of Scripture that turn anything in the Old Testament into something positive. Finally, in the Gospel of the Egyptians, Jesus and Christ are split, there is no death and resurrection, and thus there can be no discussing of either concept “according to the Scriptures.”
In the wake of Gathercole’s marvelous work, the most charitable thing that can be said about scholars who still want to defend a view of heterodoxy being as old or as viable a Christian option as orthodoxy is that they must not have read this book, or understood it if they have read it. Less charitably, one wonders if it is a case of pre-existing biases leading to an implicit stance of “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”
A generation ago, F. F. Bruce dealt with the apocryphal and Gnostic literature related to the New Testament by encouraging people simply to read them, after familiarizing themselves with the canonical accounts, and they would see for themselves just how different the two sets of works were. Now Gathercole has put flesh to the bones of that strategy. His book is still no substitute for reading the ancient texts firsthand and forming one’s own opinion. But if one’s opinion initially seems to be substantially different from Gathercole’s, one ought to go back and see what one has missed! His book is an enormously significant work in meeting the need for painstakingly careful analysis to put to rest notions of non-canonical Gospels being as (or even more) reliable or authoritative or even representative of original, apostolic first-century Christianity. For that it deserves a very wide readership indeed.
Craig Blomberg, PhD
Emeritus Distinguished Professor of New Testament